Starting with “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” Ms. Wells achieved 51 hits in the Billboard country Top 20 from 1952 to 1966. Her relentless touring on a circuit of county fairs, fire department carnivals and small-town auditoriums paved the way for later female entertainers in country music, including Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.
Part of Ms. Wells’s appeal was the contrast between the harrowing songs that became her trademark and her wholesome appearance as a demure Southern housewife in a flowing gingham dress.
Ms. Wells was a 33-year-old homemaker and part-time singer when producer Paul Cohen at Decca Records approached her in 1952 about singing “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” It proved her breakthrough.
Written by a man, J.D. Miller, the lyrics cited male neglect and adultery as the reason behind a wife’s infidelity. It was intended as a riposte to Hank Thompson’s hit of that same year, “The Wild Side of Life,” an ode to an unfaithful wife.
Ms. Wells sang:
“It wasn’t God who made honky tonk angels
As you said in the words of your song
Too many times married men think they’re still single
That has caused many a good girl to go wrong”
“Honky Tonk Angels” spent 15 weeks as the No. 1 country song, according to Billboard, but the tune was not without controversy.
NBC tried to ban “Honky Tonk Angels,” even though Ms. Wells had already performed it on the Grand Ole Opry. The network took issue with the line, “It brings back memories when I was a trustful wife.” Ms. Wells changed the word “trustful” to “trusting” — putting slightly less emphasis on the female character’s extramarital dalliances — and the censors were placated.
Nashville songwriters gave Ms. Wells further hits, mostly country ballads dealing with heartbreak, divorce and the wages of sin. The very titles — “Making Believe,”
“I Can’t Stop Loving You” (later a pop hit for Ray Charles), “Mommy For a Day,” “Will Your Lawyer Talk To God” and “A Woman Half My Age” — implied an impassioned suffering and near martyrdom.
“Most of them don’t pertain to my life,” Ms. Wells told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1993. She added that “Honky Tonk Angels” was “just a way for the womenfolk to get back at the men.”
Her revue, the Kitty Wells Family Show, lived up to its name. Her husband, Johnnie Wright of the Johnnie and Jack duo, managed and performed with her. Their three children, Ruby, Carol Sue and Bobby Wright, spent summers on the tour bus and later joined them as performers.
“People knew that she was an honest, decent wife and mother,” country music scholar Charles K. Wolfe told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 2000. “Though she was singing about love affairs, adultery and things like that, it was made permissible because she was still couched in conservative terms.”